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Mountain Running, the eternal dilemma; is it better to run or walk uphill?


The La Sportiva ambassador and university professor Nicola Giovanelli answers one of the most common questions among the mountain runners. Is it better to running or walking uphill? In this article you will find the answer, and many other interesting curiosities.

How many times have we found ourselves in the uphill phase of a race and seen some athletes walking and others running, yet both advancing at the same speed? So, does it really make sense to run if this does not make us any faster? Let’s try to answer to this question by taking a look at what happens on flat ground.

On flat terrain, the spontaneous transition speed from walking to running is between 6 and 8 km/h.  This speed minimizes energy consumption so humans have evolved in a way that over 6-8km/h it is more convenient to run, while under this speed it is more convenient to walk.  But is this rule still valid on uphill terrain?

Let’s take a look at a “typical” vertical km, a 1000-metre climb over 3km. The fastest athletes take ~30’minutes, at a speed of 6 km/h, the slowest take around 60 minutes, at a speed of 3 km/h. This already suggests that walking could be more advantageous, since the speed is lower than the 6-8 km/h we mentioned above. It is rare to see athletes running in a vertical race (even at the top): they nearly all walk, with or without the use of trekking poles, but walking it is. Analysing any race we can already find a partial answer to our initial question “Does it make sense to run uphill?” Science provides further confirmation. In fact in a recent study, walking and running at the same speed on slopes of 20 to 80% were compared. This range includes all the major vertical races (The steepest race “The Fully”, has slopes typically around 60%). The results clearly demonstrate that walking is more convenient (walking consumes less energy) than running.

These results, even if obtained in laboratory conditions, can be exported on real ground too.  For races ranging from vertical km to ultra trail, the message is clear: uphill it is more convenient to walk (unless you can achieve a higher speed while running).  But how should you walk?  The tourist pace is definitely not the right choice in order to obtain optimal performance. The pace must be long and if you do not use trekking poles, you can “take advantage” of your hands to “push on your knees".  If I find myself having to walk in a race, it makes no sense insisting on running during my training sessions. Athletes of all levels should remember that if they have to walk in a race, they should also walk during training, to prepare the muscles to work in a specific way (in this case, walking uphill).

So, the message is clear, it is better to walk up hill than to run, but this requires training; walking uphill with long strides at a fast pace on different slopes, so as to optimize the training session in order to improve overall race performance.  

 

About the author: Born in 1985, Nicola Giovanelli is now a PhD in physiology and biomechanics of physical exercise and professor at the Motor Sciences Departement at the University of Udine, as well as a La Sportiva Mountain Running Team athlete and athletic trainer specialized in mountain running. After approaching the world of skyrunning at eighteen, in recent years he has focused more on trail and endurance, boasting successes in prestigious competitions such as Camignada Poi Sie Refuge, Troi dei Cimbri e Trail degli Eroi.

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